When J. Bouey took their first dance class as a teenager in south Phoenix, they just wanted to be a stronger captain for their little-known high school step team. Now, after years of doubts and difficulties, the Arizona State University alum is joining the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in New York City, one of the most renowned and innovative dance groups in the world.
“I started taking dance classes at 15 and never thought I could be a professional dancer back then,” Bouey said. “I created backup plans during every stage of my dance education, picking up skills that serve me well to this day but served as a safety net in case my fears of failure manifested.”
When Bouey chose to attend the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, they majored in dance education even though they really wanted to focus on dance performance. But then, a postmodern contemporary dance course professor told Bouey they could make it as a professional dancer.
“This truly broke this glass ceiling I believed was above me and my dreams of dancing in the companies I admired, like Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company,” Bouey said.
With one year of college left, Bouey changed their major from dance education to dance and filled the following year with technique classes to prepare for the rigor of what they assumed New York City and company life would require. Bouey said their time at ASU also helped them craft their artistic voice and the questions they wanted to explore.
“After graduating and engaging with the dance community in New York City, I learned that we were asked to be deeply interrogative artists while many other programs were teaching students to simply follow directions,” Bouey said. “The dance world is evolving to be more in line with what the School of Film, Dance and Theatre is teaching.”
Since graduating in 2014, Bouey has been living the life of a freelance dancer — auditioning for companies and projects, dancing within companies and with choreographers, creating their own work, teaching and founding and co-hosting the Dance Union Podcast, which explores the challenges of life as a dancer and provides tips and resources.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to keep all of my revenue coming from dance and creative projects since moving to New York,” Bouey said.
The dance life has not been easy for Bouey, which is one reason why joining the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane means so much.
“I am a black person from South Central Los Angeles who went to high school on the south side of Phoenix,” said Bouey, who helped pay for school and living expenses at ASU by working at the IHOP that used to be across the street from ASU Gammage. “My family and I battled poverty throughout my dance training, and it was always apparent to me how money/wealth, race and class, among many other marginalizing identities, gave some access to dance training and left many of my friends and classmates outside of the studios. We had fears of not ‘making it’ after college because we spent our time outside of class working instead of networking, training and traveling. This company position with BTJ/AZ means that the work that systemic oppression required me to do to succeed has placed me in a position where my voice might be heard better.”
Bouey said now that their dreams of joining a company have come true, it’s time to dream bigger — to use their voice to change the dance world.
Bouey wants to see an end to sexual harassment, abuse of power and inadequate payment structures and wants to help to make dance more accessible to trans and gender nonconforming artists, artists living with disabilities and artists living with mental health challenges.
“My dream is to see a union that specifically represents dance artists and movement practitioners within my lifetime, and I know this company position is premium fuel to help make that happen,” Bouey said. “This position and visibility is a form of privilege, and just like my male privilege, I intend to use every ounce of it to dismantle systems of oppression.”
In addition to making changes in the dance world, Bouey also hopes sharing their story inspires and encourages others to pursue their own dreams.
“Nothing makes me happier than sharing my successes with my black and brown students in the Bronx, and Crown Heights, and Brownsville, neighborhoods like the ones I grew up in South Central L.A. and Phoenix,” Bouey said. “Because they deserve to see people who share their experiences move through the fears and manifest a wholehearted life.”